Leona’s Il Ristorante
Gentilly: 2100 Foy
When a famous restaurant relocates and a new eatery moves into the old building, the new place sometimes latches onto some of the panache of the famous place.
That’s what happened when Tony Angello left Gentilly for Lakeview. Leona worked for Mr. Tony, and he offered to help her turn his old place into her own restaurant. (This would not be the last time Tony did that for one of his people.)
The space didn’t have much going for it other than the food and personality of Mr. Tony. Gentilly has always been mysteriously poor in restaurants. What’s more, the dining room was upstairs–a curse that has killed dozens of restaurants in these parts around here. And not only upstairs, but upstairs on a little-known side street, tantalizingly close to two major arteries–Gentilly Boulevard and Elysian Fields.
Leona didn’t even keep the name of Tony’s old restaurant. It had been the Black Orchid, but that stuck only to the bar downstairs, a separate operation. So she named it Leona’s Il Ristorante–not exactly something that rolls off the tongue.
But despite all those drawbacks, Leona’s remained very busy for over a decade. That’s largely because Leona was smart enough to hang onto Tony Angello’s general culinary style, right down to the practice of serving dinners of many small courses.
The menu was a small book of twelve pages. The first six of them outlines all the different table d’hote possibilities. A typical dinner started with lobster cup (a baked casserole), artichoke soup, pasta asciutta, a sort of lasagna made with eggplant instead of pasta (that came out with a pasta lasagna on the same plate), then a veal dish, and dessert. It was a little bit of many things, and it wasn’t unusual for pasta to be served in two separate courses.
Fans of Tony Angello will recognize all of this food. And that was about the story at Leona’s. It was a little different, but the essentials were all there–the thick, sweet, smooth red sauce, the fine little baked seafood dishes, the fish with crabmeat and butter, a dozen ways to do veal. All of it was very good, served with loaves of United Bakery’s wonderful Italian twisted bread.
Unlike Tony Angello’s, Leona’s was open for lunch. Some of their most distinctive food came at that meal. They made one of the best versions of lentil soup I ever had. A dish called veal Majestic had a superb brown sauce with mushrooms and garlic. And the boiled beef brisket came out with spaghetti and red sauce. In the 1970s brisket was almost universal on lunch menus around town, but nobody else served it Italian style–which was a great idea.
Leona’s lived on Tony Angello’s momentum (and her own good food) for years, but business had a clear downward motion as the neighborhood changed. I went there a lot because I was going to UNO and lived nearby, but UNO has not fomented much of a restaurant scene in its neighborhood.
In 1981, Leona’s friend Ruth Fertel offered to name her the franchisee of the Dallas Ruth’s Chris Steak House. We haven’t seen her since. Leona sold her restaurant to a young man who thought he could turn the place around. He managed to get the Black Orchid name back (it’s still remembered better than Leona’s ever was), and his food was good (he, too, kept Mr. Tony’s style), but the market wasn’t there, and he closed after two or three years. There have been only sporadic attempts at opening a restaurant in the location since then.
But all my memories of dining at Leona’s are delicious ones. Somebody out there bring that brisket-and-red-sauce idea back, will you?